Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman

Why We Broke Up written by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman
Little, Brown and Company, 2011 (Currently Available)

Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Illustrated Fiction

Face Value: This book is truly a work of art in its own right. Maira Kalman, who has been one of my favorite contemporary artists ever since I discovered this illustrates Handler’s exquisite prose, and these images are almost as much a part of the story as the writing is. Not in a Brian Selznick kind of way – you technically could read the book & understand the story without the pictures. But the pictures elevate the book to something bigger, better, more meaningful. And that meaning shows on the cover it’s simple and gorgeous and tells its own story.

And if that beautiful cover weren’t enough for you, flip the book over. Normally I don’t pay much heed to author blurbs, as I don’t usually think a one-sentence plug from an author tells me all that much about whether I’m going to like it or not. But these blurbs are different. Rather than a series of adjectives describing the book, these authors give us a sentence that tells a story about a breakup of their own, ranging from funny to sad or both. My favorite is this one from Brian Selznick:

“I knew I had to break up with Ann Rosenberg after she chose a teal dress for the prom. I had never heard of teal. Also, I was gay.”

That could be a book in itself. I’d read it.

Does it Break the Slate? You know what? I can’t really decide. Kind of. Yes? Not really. And Min, I’m not holding it against you. I get it. Breakups are hard. And while I think this book does a great job of depiciting two high schoolers who have a sweet, believable romance. And I do believe that Min grows up through her romancing with Ed, and that she demonstrates some Slatebreaking tendencies.

The thing is though, this is a book about a relationship that wasn’t all that great, even if it seemed like it at the time. And it’s a book about a girl’s sadness about not having her boyfriend in her life anymore, which OBVIOUSLY I UNDERSTAND, and she doesn’t need to justify that to anybody. But I don’t know if that lends itself, necessarily to being a Slatebreaking story. However, there are some great moments, truly great, in which sex is treated as a normal thing for teens to want and experience. And Min’s emotional experiences are given real legitimacy and weight. The last thing I want to suggest is that by showing sadness or emotion, or that by being sad about a breakup you lose any kind of feminist credibility. Because you don’t!

So I’m not sure whether or not I think this is a Slatebreaking book. I know that I liked it, and that I’d recommend it. I’ll details some observations in the review, and when you read it, I’d really like to hear your opinions in the comments.

Who would we give it to? Anybody going through a rough first breakup who needs a good cry, anyone who connects more deeply with books if they are illustrated, and anyone who wants to read some YA that looks respectable from the packaging.

Review: I was really thrilled about reading this book, as Daniel Handler wrote the amazingly clever Series of Unfortunate Events books under the name Lemony Snicket and Maira Kalman has been one of my favorite artists for a long time. Seriously, did anyone else see her exhibit in LA’s Skirball Center last year? Amazing. And truly, this is a beautifully written book, elevated by Kalman’s drawings to an incredibly compelling reading experience. It’s all written from Min’s point of view, as she writes a final letter to her now-ex boyfriend Ed, returning his things and describing the arc of their relationship as she does. Each item is accompanied by an illustration from Kalman. It’s a gimmick, but it is a gimmick that totally works as a narrative device. Even though you know the relationship is doomed from page 1 – ok, from the title – Handler still manages to infuse enough sweetness and romance into the early parts of the relationship, while still maintaining Min’s sadness and cynicism over the end. Take, for example, Min’s explanation to Ed of why she’s writing the letter:

“I loved you and now here’s back your stuff, out of my life like you belong, is the smile. I know you can’t see it, not you, Ed, but maybe if I tell you the whole plot you’ll understand it this once because even know I want you to see it. I don’t love you anymore, of course I don’t, but still there’s something I can show you. You know I want to be a director, but you could never truly see the movies in my head and that, Ed, is why we broke up.”

Gorgeous, right? Min’s language is just elevated enough, that we still believe she’s a high schooler but she says it better than we could have when we were in high school

Min is a bit of an outsider, and an interesting aspect of this book from a Slatebreaking POV is this perception of her as “arty” and as “different than other girls,” something that is a recurring theme throughout her relationship with Ed. This is only a sampling of the number of times she’s referred to as such:

p51: “‘Are you mad at me?’ you asked.
    ‘No, not mad’ I said.
    ‘You see, that’s another thing. I can’t tell. You’re a different girl  than usual, no offense Min, oops, sorry’
    ‘What are the other girls like,’ I said. ‘when they get mad?

p123: “‘Ed’s right about you,’ she said. ‘You’re different.’
    ‘Arty,’ I said. ‘I know. Can I have some of yours?’
    She handed me the plastic cup. ‘He never said arty.’
    ‘What did he say?’
    ‘Just different. He likes you, Min.’”

p141: “I didn’t know girls, or anyone, talked this way. Is that why – is that what you meant, complicated?”

p207: “‘No other girl,’ you said. ‘Nobody else ever did anything but freak out if I mentioned any other girl.’
    ‘I’m different, I know,’ I said, a little bored of that.”

You get the idea. Because while Min is “different” than the other girls Ed has dated, and she knows it because people keep telling her that, But what I really enjoyed was that Min is such a plausible, legitimate character. She is no manic pixie dream girl (though if the book were written from Ed’s point of view, she might come across that way). But Min, like so many people in high school, is simply trying to figure herself out, trying to define her own identity. Part of that identity is rooted in the things that she loves – things like old obscure movies and antique stores. Part of that identity is wrapped up in her friends, and the way they see themselves, and see her, and sit and drink coffee together at a hip cafe after school. And part of that identity becomes tied to Ed, and how he sees her, and what it means to be his girlfriend. All of those things are legit, because Min, like all human beings, at any age, is still negotiating her own identity.

So of course Min prickles at the constant descriptions of herself as “different” and “arty.” Because even though she wants to define herself as creative and outside the box, and a girl with a brilliant future as a director, she also knows what it means to be labeled that way. And she doesn’t want to be trapped in that box either, for good or for bad. Near the end of the book, at the emotional climax of the breakup, Min panics:

“And the truth is that I’m not, Ed, is what I wanted to tell you. I’m not different. I’m not arty like everyone says who doesn’t know me, I don’t paint, I can’t draw, I play no instrument, I can’t sing. I’m not in plays, I wanted to say, I don’t write poems. I can’t dance except tipsy at dances. I’m not a goth or a cheerleader, I’m not treasurer or co-captain. I’m not gay and out and proud, I’m not that kid from Sri Lanka, not a triplet, a prep, a drunk, a genius, a hippie, a Christian, a slut, not even one of those super Jewish girls with a yarmulke gang wishing everyone a happy Sukkkoth. I’m not anything, this is what I realized.”

Of course, it’s not true. Min is a lot of things. But can anyone reading this review not empathize with the emotion? And I think that’s the core of this book. We’re trying to define ourselves, and sometimes fall apart when the things that held that identity together start to unravel. And then we move forward, and figure things out.

So with that in mind, I think I’m going to decide that this book, at it’s heart, is a Slatebreaking book. Because this is a book about figuring out who you are, and realizing that who you are sometimes involves other people. And when those other people, whether they’re boyfriends, friends, parents, anyone, leave your life, it changes you, and it breaks your heart. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to go forward, and still live your life, and still figure out who you are and who you’re going to be. Min does. And the readers of the book, especially those who might stumble across it in a moment of grieving their own heartbreak – I have a strong suspicion that they will too.

Reviewed from copy purchased at Changing Hands.

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